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Coffee Roasting Snobbery

When I shop for groceries, I’m typically one to buy off-brands or whatever is on sale, with one exception – coffee. For me, paying $12 a pound has always been worth it so long as the coffee was well-roasted and fresh.

(from Flickr user Morten Brekkevold)

There isn’t a shortage of gourmet coffee in DC, I just haven’t yet found one that I’ve become particularly attached to. So not too long ago I decided to try my hand at coffee roasting, and I’ve since become a huge fan of home-roasted coffee.

A lot of people like the idea of home roasting because of the potential cost-savings, but like I said, that’s not really the issue for me. The greatest thing about home roasting is that the coffee is always guaranteed to be fresh; there is never any question about how old a particular batch of coffee might be.

Now, I'm still an amateur as far as all of this goes, and my roasts are hardly what anyone would consider professional-grade. It's inevitable. Nobody cooks anything perfectly without a little practice. When I roast, some beans come out a little darker or lighter than others. Nonetheless, the freshness simply can’t be matched.

Plus, there’s that sense of accomplishment you get from doing something on your own. Anybody can go to a bakery and buy a fancy cake, but the one you successfully bake on your own is the one that you typically perceive as tasting the best.

Coffee roasting is, in fact, surprisingly easy. You don’t need fancy equipment, you don’t need any secret ingredients. All you need are unroasted (green) coffee beans, heat, and a pot/pan. I hope this post successfully demonstrates how simple it really is.

Step One: Buy green coffee beans
This may actually be the most difficult of the four steps. I’ve been buying my green beans from Joel at Qualia Coffee in the Petworth neighborhood of DC (it’s an excellent coffee shop, beans aside).

My guess is that most coffee shops that roast on-site will have green beans for sale. Some Whole Foods stores that roast on-site also sell them. Otherwise, you can always order online, from Sweet Maria's or Coffee Bean Direct. Be careful what you pay though. Joel sells me green beans at $6.50 per pound, but I have seen some places that sell green beans for something like 10% off the price of the roasted beans, which typically isn’t a great deal.

Step Two: Determine the best roasting method
Like I mentioned, you don’t need a lot of equipment to roast beans. There are many home roasting methods, but the one I use is one of the simplest.

One important decision to make is whether to do the roasting indoors or outdoors. Coffee roasting produces smoke, and the scent isn’t necessarily pleasant. The first time I roasted I thought the smoke smelled like fireworks. For that reason, I roast outdoors, using the backyard grill as a heat source, but you can roast indoors with a stove, oven, hotplate, or any cooking device that produces heat.

You’ll need a pot or pan or similar dish for the roast. I picked something at the local Goodwill that my roommate thinks is a payaya dish.

Whatever kind of dish it is, it works just fine.

Step Three: Roast the beans
Once I'm ready to go, I carry the following items outside: pan with the green coffee beans, big metal spoon, oven mitts (so I don't burn myself) and a colander (to pour the beans into when I'm finished). At this point I fire up the grill and get things started.

The whole process takes 10-20 minutes, depending on how hot the cooking device is and how dark you want to roast the beans. Oh high heat with the lid of the grill closed, the beans get going very quickly. It's important to keep the beans moving as often as possible, in order to achieve a somewhat even roast.

Perhaps the biggest downfall to my simple method is that it can never really achieve a good even roast. Some beans will inevitably be lighter or darker than others. My roommate says he has an idea for a drum roaster that we can build and use on the grill, which will allow me to roast more beans at once and also to achieve a nice even roast. For now, though, the pan will do just fine.

As the beans roast, a few important things happen. As the beans undergo 'first crack' they make an audible popping sound, begin to emit smoke, and lose their chafe (the skin of the unroasted bean). Another nice thing about roasting outside is that you don't have to deal with cleaning up the chafe after the fact.

Once the beans have undergone first crack, they begin to resemble what most people would recognize as coffee beans. At this point the length of time you leave them over heat depends on how dark you want the roast to be. In my first few attempts, I've stuck with light and medium roasts (more on different roast levels here).

When the beans get to the color that I want them, I pour them out into the colander. I then toss the beans in the colander in front of a fan to blow off as much excess chafe as possible. Lastly, I stick it in the refrigerator just briefly to cool the beans down a bit.

Step Four: Enjoy the freshest coffee ever
As with anything, the first time I tried my hand at roasting the beans came out less-than-ideal. Nevertheless, I grinded my beans the next morning and made myself a cup at work. To my surprise, even though the beans weren't the greatest looking or evenly roasted, they tasted fantastic. Fortunately, my skill has since improved, and my beans are starting to look pretty decent.

If you're serious about home roasting, I would recommend a little additional research. While this post was inspired to show that coffee roasting isn't really that difficult, it's certainly not a comprehensive guide to roasting. Truth be told, I'm still learning myself.


goborobo said…
I tried a lot of improvised methods for roasting coffee at home. The one that worked best for me was an electric popcorn popper. The heat was so intense that I needed to get the beans off the bottom to prevent them being scorched. I did this by wedging a metal sink strainer in the chamber. It was still so hot that the beans roasted really quickly. One improvement - which I didn't try - would be to reduce the wattage. Another would be to move the beans further up with a custom strainer.
Harrow said…
Im a big coffee fan, but never thought about actually roasting my own beans - it sounds like something I should definately try; thanks for the walkthrough!
Anonymous said…
Like you, I want my beans freshly roastsed. I would like to offer a suggestion which may help you to achieve a more uniform/satisfying roast (your beans look a bit burnt). After hearing the first crack, you have not a lot of time before the second crack (time lapse varies depending on bean type); once second crack begins, you've got to act quickly to avoid burnt beans. Anyway, I salut your efforts. Cheers!
How inspiring! I grind my own, but now I'll need to find someone who sells green coffee beans in Norway :-)

(and thanks for giving proper credit for my photo, not everyone cares to)
Roasted Ken said…
Hope you find my own roasting tips suitable and helpful!
Latte Machine said…
This is useful tutorial, especially with photos. Photos always make everything easier. I like to do everything by myself and as great coffee fun I like to be the master of my coffee. Coffee roasting was the last thing I’ve never tried because I have had bad experience from my childhood when my mom bought green coffee beans and rousted them at home. That was awful! Not only kitchen but also all home was full of smoke and as a kid I really thought that we have fire. I was scared! Besides the result of roasting wasn’t pretty good and as I remember my mom was angry because, as she said, coffee has awful taste. Now I’ll be brave and will try it because in your tutorial everything seems so easy :)

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